When an opportunity comes my way to travel to a city known for its food, almost any excuse will do. When it is a town on my top five list, no arm twisting required. Living in New York City tends to narrow my view of dining. More and more restaurants that open seem driven by the same formula: a downtown location, a sexy crowd, and food that serves the needs of those who treat food as dressing, while also appeasing to the so called discerning foodies.
Aside from high end restos, cheap ethnic dining is best, offering real value for your food, packed with real flavor. If this were a BYO town such as Philly or Chicago, we would have something here. But how would the restaurants pay the rent. One can get easily caught up in the notion that New York is the center of the universe in dining, and neglect other foodtowns, USA. New Orleans disproves this theory. San Francisco, Charleston, and (fill in the blank)head the list.
This weekend Chicago was the venue, and year after year, I leave with a great impression of a food culture that is thriving and genuine.
After arriving on Thursday afternoon and checking into the Affinia Hotel, I was treated to a surprise, an authentic Chick-Fil-A. We don’t have it in New York, and I haven’t tried it. But chicken would have to wait, as I had a date with Carriage Bakery, a small shop run by scientific dudes, dedicated to making pot pies and pasties, British style, with all the trimmings, peas, chips and malt vinegar, mashed potatoes and gravy. Country ditties on the screen reminded me of Deliverance, but the only revelation was just how great these pies were, filled with steak, chicken, stew meat, or the special of the day, cheese and potato. Washed down with a hibiscus soda, I couldn’t help but think that in NYC, another meatball or bao bun shop opened up instead. A necessary cup of coffee from neighboring upstart Bridgeport was proper and enjoyable. Auspicious beginning.
That evening I headed over to the Purple Pig, which was hopping at 6 pm. I always forget that in the Midwest, people prefer to dine early. With no reservation and a party for six, we were grabbed a two hour wait. The reservation system was handled on a piece of paper and not well managed. They were overwhelmed. We were crammed at the bar. I checking in several times and witnessed several spaces we could have been squeezed into, but I was told that people were running late. I watched as a family of six with four kids arrived late and took the space. A huge pet peeve of mine, no kids at wine bars during peak times. They drink soda! After some nice cocktails and cidre from Normandie, we ordered a bottle of lambrusco. After 15 minutes, it was clear that our order was forgotten. Note to self, dine after nine in Chicago.
When the time had elapsed, the hostess offered us a table out in the Chicago cold. I expressed my displeasure, and stated the obvious. That If I had been informed after waiting for two hours standing at the bar, that I was to be offered seating outside, I would have left accordingly. All was forgiven when we finally were seated and comped the Lambrusco. We ordered off the vast menu. Some dishes were quite memorable. The charcuterie plate was bright anchored by a creamy testa. Pork rillettes were rich and devoured. Almonds fried in pork fat was eye opening. Iberico lardo on toast points will be stolen and put on my menu at home. The star dish was a balance fried, sliced pig’s ears salad with pickled peppers and fried kale, a real stunner. The quail and roasted marrow bones were tasty albeit small in portion size, the mussels and octopus less successful. The wine list was well put together offering many reasonable choices. We had a bottle of Movia sauvignon blanc, LDH Tondonia Blanco 2001, and a Cerasuolo di Vittoria, all at great prices. The cheese course was tame, and I wished for more aggressive offerings. Time spent in total: 5 hours.
The following day we took in the Field museum and the Genghis Khan exhibit, whose DNA is responsible for 16 million Mongolians, The Red Queen supreme. We paid a visit to the Bongo Room for their famous brunch, and comparing it to certain NY bruncheries, it held up its own, with intellgentsia coffee and great bacon and pork sausage. I will have to return for the pancakes, which looked fabulous.
Squeezed in a Chik-Fil-A which was not bad, but nothing to write home about. Moderately moist chicken, sorry bun, interesting, albeit sweet sauces.
A quick pit stop for oysters and cocktails in the C-Room (the hotel resto), and all was fine, but one could not detect Chef Marcus Samuelson’s stamp on anything. It certainly was no Red Rooster. A trip to the United Center was only overshadowed in anticipation of an evening at Publican, my favorite gastro pub anywhere.
Great seats by the kitchen, artisanal craft beers and pork rinds, heaven’s gate now open and the true games begin. Hamachi crudo, pickled corn, onions, and pickles, boudin blanc, and more pork rinds, ethereal cheese and vinegar spiced, the perfect bar food. The beer list is so well selected, you almost can’t bring yourself to order wine, but slightly sweet gruner and halb-trocken Riesling cut right into the fat of the steak tartare, brilliantly prepared. The service is impeccable, and I truly lament that they don’t open a branch in NYC. To follow up, lovely cocktails were had at Maude’s, a sleeper in my book. Their house smashes took me out.
The next day I had my mind set on a burger, and we were advised to experience Kuma’s Corner for some heavy metal and all the fixings. There was a three-hour wait, so we ordered take-out, which was prompt, seven burgers and fries, mac n cheese in half an hour. It was a little chilly for a picnic, but that was the only viable venue option. Aside from the novelty nomenclature, I found the burgers to be good, enormous, and the toppings to be slightly more interesting than the burgers themselves. No comparison to Pat La Frieda’s black label or The Burger Joint here.
Quick digestion was necessary, as some hard to procure seats at Schwa for 8:30 were waiting, a meal I have been looking forward to all month.
Outside Schwa looks like a shuttered storefront, shades down and abandoned looking. The cab offered to keep the meter running. We walked in without an escape plan, and to our delight, they were open, alive and kicking.
We were well armed for the BYO nine-course affair. Larmandier Bernier Terre de Vertus Blanc de Blancs, Domaine Servin Les Preuses Grand Cru Chablis 2008, and Mastrobernardino Radici Taurasi 1999 Riserva purchased fom Binny’s, apparently the only game in town. There was no Chamber’s Street in sight, and I will have to look into the wine selection availability more in depth in the future.
Enter a non-descript rectangular room anchored in the rear by an open kitchen as seen through a square porthole, with smoke and fire wafting through the ceiling, as modern hip hp blares and thumps thorough the Polk speakers. At first it seem disjointed, all that rap, and the recessed down attitude. But after we were seated, you just have to surrender, which was upon observance the only option exercised by the rest of the patrons.
One menu, nine courses, and service by the chefs who finish a dish and bring it out to the table. Silver-plated ceiling above, back graffiti sprayed walls surrounded by silver blinged lighting fixtures: Odyssey 2000 meets Harlem meets El Bulli on American soil.
One could say it’s all about the food, but the music is there, thumping, causing you to rock back and forth or bow your dome in rhythm, a rap opera setting.
Amuse: Chocolate cherry bomb Manhattan, Flower tonic
Cassoulet : deconstructed w pig ears
Baked Potato deconstructed into a soup
Raviolo Truffle Egg
Tortelloni Crab Apple Celery broth
Roe, Passion fruit, violet
Salmon Sous Vide
Cocoa Crusted Halibut in apricot and curry
Squab w/ Bourbon flavors, Dr. Pepper
The cooking is inventive, refreshing, and ballsy. The flavors are balanced, bright with acidity, and artistic on the plate. This is no apology cooking from Chef Carlson and crew. You can tell they are doing it “my way” and if you are open for the experience it all makes sense in the end, expert technique and an approach to food that is playful, whimsical, thought provoking, and delicious, a feeling I had not had since dining at El Bulli.
In New York, Romera tried its hand, and failed, panned by critics and misunderstood by New York’s “educated” and “sophisticated” diners. I wonder what reception Schwa would receive in NYC. It is a shame that this type of cooking does not exist in my home town, save for Chef Wylie.
Followed up the great performance with some jazz from Joanna Connor at Kingston Mines, swizzling Goose Island until close.
Couldn’t leave Chicago without a deep dish pizza, but logistics steered me local for some rather good Hawaiian and meat stuffed pies, nothing that will replace the Napoletana craze back home. Next time I want to try Smoque BBQ.
I leave Chicago with much respect, a little bit of envy, great satisfaction, basking into the arms of my diversely ethnic melting pot of comfort food, celebrity chef type and people watching venues that stand in for restaurants nowadays in NYC, anxiously waiting for the food to be the star.